BWW Interviews: Charles Smith Talks KNOCK ME A KISS and Playwriting
With less than twenty-four hours until the Ensemble Theatre opened the Regional Premiere of KNOCK ME A KISS, I got to have a brief conversation about the play with its playwright, Charles Smith. During our conversation we discussed the play, which introduces audiences to Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois. It exposes the audience to the hardships she faced and endured in search of her own happiness.
Me: What was your inspiration for KNOCK ME A KISS?
Charles Smith: Well, the inspiration came from a different play I was working on. I was working on a play about Marcus Garvey, and during my research on Marcus Garvey and his time here-you know, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois had a huge run in. They were rivals. Philosophical rivals. Social and political rivals-and while doing research about Garvey, I went into Du Bois' life. While exploring Du Bois' life, I found his attitude toward his daughter to be very curious. He seemed to, at times, blame her for the evils of the world and at other times dismiss her. And I started asking people who knew about The Harlem Renaissance and knew about Du Bois about this. I'd say, "What's up with his attitude toward his daughter?" And they'd say, "Well, because of the marriage." So I started doing research on the marriage and realized that he really liked Countee Cullen. The marriage between Countee Cullen and his daughter was really the marriage of Harlem. It was really the beginning of what Du Bois considered to be the Talented Tenth. You know, his own daughter was going to start to populate this sort of race of super Negro. [Laughs] And when the marriage fell apart, he blamed her even though she, I found out later, let him know that Countee Cullen was gay and that's the reason fro the divorce. So, I was impressed by the story and I was impressed by Yolande, W.E.B. Du Bois' daughter. Impressed by her fortitude and impressed by the burden that she decided to shoulder.
Me: What was your writing process like for KNOCK ME A KISS?
Charles Smith: Oh boy, the process! Well, first I had to make sure indeed that Countee Cullen was gay. You know, I didn't want to base a play on a rumor. So, I did a lot of research on the period, and I did a lot of research on Yolande Du Bois and Countee Cullen. Finally, I found a letter that Yolande Du Bois sent her father, W.E.B. Du Bois, from Paris saying that Countee Cullen confessed this to her. So once I got that, I really kind of knew what the play was going to be about. I knew that the child had died and Nina Du Bois blamed W.E.B. Du Bois for the death, and I knew that Yolande was sort of torn between two men. One man had an appetite for life, an appetite for women, and was really hard on her, and that was Jimmy Lunceford. The other man was erudite, sort of reserved, and sort of her father's idea of what a man was. I think that a lot of people understand her dilemma looking at these two men. You know, a lot of us had those two people rolled into one, but sometimes you've got to choose one or the other. She chose erudite. Once I found the evidence, I knew what the play was going to be. Then I sort of forgot about the characters, you know, and started writing about how I felt about what she was up against.
Me: Other recent plays, like Jeff Talbott's THE SUBMISSION, have handled the seemingly present disconnect between the homosexual community and the African-American community. Does KNOCK ME A KISS shed any light on this issue?
Charles Smith: On the disconnect? Well, you know, [Pauses]. Man, see, I don't know if it does or not because I don't know what that disconnect is. I personally don't think that there's a disconnect. I know in some church communities there might be a disconnect, but I grew up on the south side of Chicago. We all knew who, well, maybe not all of the gay men and women in my neighborhood. We may not have known who all of them were. Certainly everybody who was out, we knew who they were, and it wasn't any big deal, you know. I mean, [Laughs], that's just who they were. They were not ostracized. Nobody went after them or anything. I think this is a relatively new phenomenon that was given by our conservative political motivations, trying to drive a wedge between those two communities. I don't think there's a disconnect, and if there is, I don't know if my play sheds light on it. I didn't treat Countee Cullen the way I grew up. I treat it the way I know my community to have pictured it, so... [Laughs]
Me: I have to be honest. THE SUBMISSION really challenged me because whenever I was experiencing the work, I couldn't help but think, "I didn't know that there was tension here." Growing up in and around Southeast Houston, I had never seen it between the two communities either.
Charles Smith: Yeah! You know. C'mon, man. You know, I think it's manufactured. I mean, go to Atlanta. [Laughs] Man, the community is there and I just don't think there is a disconnect. I don't think there's a riff. And if there is it's between the conservative Blacks or African-Americans who want to speak for the race. I've seen a couple of them on television, sort of superstitious and religious folk, who want to in the name of God try to say to somebody. That's been who they are. So, that's my take on it.
Me: What do you hope audiences take with them after seeing KNOCK ME A KISS?
Charles Smith: Hopefully they'll come out with a couple of things you. First, on a very sort of concrete level to understand that W.E.B. Du Bois did many great things, but as a father and as a husband he, and he admits this-he admitted this many times-he wasn't the best father, and he was not the best husband, to say the least. Again, he has admitted that and is aware of that. So, beginning with that, hopefully the audiences will understand that his wife and his daughter, his family, also sacrificed a great deal for his vision and for social equality in this country. You know, we may not know about Yolande Du Bois. We may not know about Nina Du Bois, but they sacrificed a great deal. They lived in the shadow, and they sacrificed their own desire and their own life for this. So, that's the one concrete thing. And on a very personal level, I hope that the audiences that see the play will think about choices that they make when it comes to love, when it comes to following their heart versus following what they think they should or are supposed to be doing. The play's about, "Do I do what everybody expects me to do or do I follow my own heart?" You know, I mean, that's what the play's about. So, hopefully, people will think about that and give that some good thought. I think a lot of times we try to put on a good front instead of saying, "No, this ain't right!" [Laughs] And the play's saying, "No, you gotta follow your heart."
Me: As an artist, what inspires you?
Charles Smith: Oh man, you know, that's a good question. What inspires me? Everything inspires me. Seeing people's lives and seeing the choices that they make. Understanding who we are today and how we got here, that I find incredibly fascinating. You now, I think a lot of folks don't understand who and where they are in life, and that inspiration for me is something central. So, that's one of the things that inspire me. And the answers to that come from, I think, the most surprising places. With this exploration in W.E.B. Du Bois' daughter, I think she was a pivotal figure and somebody we can learn from. I mean this happened in 1930, and I think we can trace back to it and that can inform us today about who we are and how we should live our lives.
Me: As an author, what advice do you offer to other aspiring playwrights?
Charles Smith: Aw man, keep at it. [Pauses] You know, you got to keep at it. You just can't write a play and then expect everybody to jump up and down, get excited, and call you brilliant because a lot of the times they do it right after you write the play [Laughs] they might not be truthful. So what you have to do, you write the play and when you get done with one, it's time to write another one. You've just got to keep moving forward like that. And don't try to figure out what the audience wants. Figure out what your voice is. Once you've figured out that, the audience will find you.
Me: Speaking of writing another play, do you have anything in the works that you can talk about?
Charles Smith: Yeah, a couple. You know, I'm working with Chuck [Smith], the director, on a musical adaptation of the Marcus Garvey play we did at the Griffin a number of years ago. And I'm working on a play about a young kid who was caught up in the civil war in Australia. It's based on this kid I met while I was in Australia, who has an incredibly fascinating story. So, those are a couple of the projects I'm working on now.
Houston audiences can see Charles Smith's KNOCK ME A KISS at the Ensemble Theatre through February 24, 2013. For more information and tickets, please visit http://www.ensemblehouston.com/ or call (713) 520 - 0055.
Photo courtesy of Ensemble Theatre.